It might be a matter-of-fact statement, but the last nine months have not been good for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). What began in October with violent attacks on two lawmakers from Cambodia’s largest opposition party – three members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit were jailed for the incident in May – was followed a month later with the self-imposed exile of the CNRP’s president, Sam Rainsy, after a warrant was issued for his arrest relating to a seven-year-old defamation lawsuit, which was followed swiftly by the National Assembly stripping him of his lawmaker status and immunity from prosecution. Then, in May, the CNRP’s vice president, and acting leader, Kem Sokha, was threatened with arrest following a government investigation into his alleged affair and defamation accusations. Kem Sokha is now believed to be hiding somewhere in Phnom Penh.
The so-called “culture of dialogue” between the CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which achieved a slight repose between the two parties for some time, is now a distant memory and once again we are confronted with the uglier, although more conventional, face of Cambodian politics.
“The political situation is [a] really serious crisis which needs to be taken into consideration by the international community,” said the CNRP’s chief whip Son Chhay. And, in due form, a spokesperson for the UN said in late May that the organization is “concerned about the escalating tensions between the ruling and opposition parties in Cambodia, particularly arrests or attempted arrests… A non-threatening environment of democratic dialogue is essential for political stability and a peaceful and prosperous society.”
Still, and not to downplay the severity of the government’s attacks on the CNRP, this is hardly novel. Rainsy has gone into exile on four occasions since the early 1990s – with this latest ostracism earning him the derision as a “coward” by spokesman for the CPP – and many of its long standing activists and politicians have felt the rough hand of the government previously, some on numerous occasions. As a Phnom Penh Post analysis piece put it in May: “Similar tightenings occurred in 2005-06, and again in 2009-10, both containing the usual mix of ingredients: flimsy lawsuits, blustery threats from Prime Minister Hun Sen, a lengthening cast of sued and imprisoned.”
In March, the prominent CNRP member of parliament Mu Sochua — who herself was once sued by Hun Sen for defamation — told me that little would change following Sam Rainsy’s departure; “We have never lost a seat because [Sam Rainsy] is in exile… The party structure continues to work as usual.” Indeed, just weeks the CNRP leader returned from exile in July 2013, at the national election the CNRP won 55 seats compared to the CPP’s 68, or 2.9 million votes to 3.2 million. But such stoicism may be a front for an excess of confidence, and even Sam Rainsy duly noted in his autobiography We Didn’t Start The Fire that “any country would suffer from the forced absence of the leader of the opposition party.”
In any case, if the CNRP was being hit only with violence and somatic intimidation it would be bad enough, but perhaps graver – and less acknowledged – have been the CPP’s attacks on the ideological front.
The opposition party has been derided in the past as being devoid of ideology and meaningful policies, and only possessing platitudes. A somewhat unfair statement, although not inherently untrue. If asked to summarize the political positions of the two parties, one could reasonably reply that they are separated by differing shades of populism. Neither commandeers the “left” or “right” on the political axis, nor claims exclusivity of reactionism or progressivism.
However protean Cambodian politics is, at the 2013 elections the CNRP did at least campaign on a seven-point platform. This included plans to introduce a state pension for the elderly; significant minimum wage raises for garment workers and public servants; state guaranteed prices for agricultural produce; free medical care for the poor; improvements in education; and lower prices on fuel and electricity.
Yet, as Hun Sen has always said, the CNRP can make such promises but the CPP has the power to enact them — or, as it turns out, appropriate them. Since the elections, the government has raised minimum wages for garment workers to $140 per month – $10 shy of the CNRP promise – while civil servants wages will hit $250 per month by 2018, something Hun Sen previously said was impossible. A new health insurance scheme became law earlier in the year, which will apply to formally employed workers. The government has also moved to reduce fuel and electricity prices. Only two of the CNRP’s seven-point platform has not yet been taken by the CPP.
“Salaries of civil servants, and some other affairs of the nation – even though the [CNRP] has not yet gone on to lead the country, [the CPP] are taking it into consideration when before, they had never thought of it at all,” Kem Sohka said in February. (When I spoke to several CNRP lawmakers a few months ago, they said the party was preparing a new list of policies for the upcoming elections, although no document has been produced as of yet.)
On top of the reforms first proposed by the CNRP, the government has promised widespread reforms to tackle issues such as corruption, deforestation, judicial impartiality, and the numerous other ailments inflicting Cambodian society. “The government of Cambodia continues to push active implementation of in-depth and wide reforms, with the consideration that reform is a life-and-death factor for the country,” reads a leaked copy of a report used at the CPP’s annual congress in January.
One can trace this “reformist” path to a six-hour speech Hun Sen made in September 2013 when he provided a rather poetic lesson to fellow ministers as to how clean themselves of years of accumulated mire.
“First, you need to use a mirror to look at yourself. Second, you have to take a bath to clean your body. Third, you have to scrub your body while bathing if it is plagued by dirty things. Fourth, you have to heal your disease,” the prime minister said, later adding: “If this can’t be done by all of you, I can’t wait to die with all of you.”
As the journalist and author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, Sebastian Strangio, told me: “The CPP was smart: they saw the CNRP’s promises drew a huge amount of support to the opposition. So, naturally, they’ve moved to steal their thunder. But the CPP, unlike the opposition, is actually in a position to improve people’s lives right away… By appropriating the opposition’s promise, the CPP has bolstered its claim to legitimacy.”
And give ear to this: “We have continued to implement reforms in favor of the people’s needs, as we don’t give insubstantial promises, but we take action in favor of people’s needs. We believe the public has seen how much the government has already done to solve the people’s suffering,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told the Cambodia Daily in January.
The CPP has also thrust itself onto the opposition party’s natural territory – social media. Hun Sen’s avuncular efforts to appeal to voters on Facebook is well-documented, and he recently ordered his ministries to set up “Facebook watchdog” groups to monitor public concerns and respond duly, yet only time will tell how his awkward selfies and self-aggrandizing posts appeal to voters.
Of course, it must also be stated that although a limited number of reforms have been enacted or promised by the CPP, corruption remains rife, along with deforestation, land grabs, and forced evictions in Phnom Penh to make way for the city’s gentrification, while trade unions are coming under increasing attacks as are members of Cambodia’s relatively robust civil-society. In fact, just as leopards seldom changes their spots, one might assume that the CPP’s newfound enthusiasm for reform is just sensible politics – a gilding of progress on an otherwise unchanged, quotidian political discourse.
One might also assume that Hun Sen has never heard of Dick Morris, nor of the term triangulation, but he has shown he knows its implications all too well. It was the political consultant and chief aide of Bill Clinton’s presidential re-election campaign in 1996 who coined the term, which, as he defined it in his book Power Plays, is “to work hard to solve the problems that motivate the other party’s voters, so as to defang them politically… to use your party’s solutions to solve the other side’s problems.”
As the 2017 local elections and 2018 national elections approach, the CNRP may well have more to fear from the CPP’s triangulation than its intimidation; the latter it knows all too well, but the former poses a novel problem. Despite its president being in exile for the preceding years and its ministers seldom left in peace by the government, the CNRP’s success at the 2013 elections was down to its message of change and social development, which chimed with voters and was enough for the party to secure only 300,000 votes fewer than the CPP. But, in 2018, the electorate might be tempted to stick with mild reform that is visible rather than genuine change that might not be possible, given that Cambodia has never known a peaceful transfer of power between political parties and the CPP has already threatened it might not allow one to take place.
Over the course of the next two years, the CNRP’s leaders will face graver tasks than just staying out of prison if they want to take power in 2018.
David Hutt is a journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.